Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Fort Sumner & Bosque Redondo - Small Town Charm Amid a Violent Past

By Wren Propp

Serious events of more than 150 years ago play a major role in the lifeblood of Fort Sumner, home to the Bosque Redondo Memorial and Billy the Kid's gravesite. But visitors also can enjoy fishing, birding, camping, and even old fashioned soda fountain while taking in all that history.

On one hand visitors may come to see the gravesite of Billy the Kid, a Lincoln County War character whose mythologized youth (he was a starving orphan) and homicidal bravado usually overshadows the bloody reasons for the war itself. There’s a private museum and references throughout town referring to the Kid who was finally hunted down and killed here by Sheriff Pat Garrett back in 1881. 

Then on the other hand, there's the memorial and education center dedicated to the sorrow and survival of two Indian tribes. The center recalls the suffering of the Diné (Navajo) after thousands of them were forcibly and murderously marched by the U.S. Army from their homeland in northwestern New Mexico to imprisonment at Fort Sumner, on the far eastern side of the territory. The forced marches came to be known as The Long Walk. The Diné were joined at "the Fort" by other prisoners, the Ndé (Mescalero Apache) from southern New Mexico.

You may think “museum” as you approach the Bosque Redondo Memorial but it really isn't.

It's a state sponsored historical site, an international site of consciousness, intended to raise awareness of the horrific treatment the two native groups experienced, and some survived, in the 1860s. Inside visitors will find art, historical documents and artifacts, interpretive signs and other displays that tell their story. Visitors also will find thoughtfully appointed quiet areas throughout the memorial where guests can privately reflect upon what they've learned during their visit.

The Bosque Redondo Memorial marks the place “where misery laid down its head every night.” Thousands of people were held against their will, suffering starvation, exploitation, cultural dismemberment and often, death.

The ultimate triumph of both the Diné and the Ndé over their captors is so remarkable, and historically significant, it's surprising that no one’s made a dramatic movie about it (yet) although there is a documentary film from 2009.

Bosque Redondo was the site of the signing of the 1868 Treaty between the U.S. and the Diné, a document that guides the relationship between the tribe and the federal government today. The Ndé also signed a treaty, albeit after they left Fort Sumner.

The impetus of the current memorial came from a 1990 letter signed by several Diné high school students who called out for more recognition of their people’s suffering and survival at the Bosque Redondo site. 

The students had toured a small museum near the site of the old fort and were stunned that the deadly imprisonment of their ancestors, and the signing of the 1868 Treaty, were mere footnotes beside robust histories of Billy the Kid and the U.S. Army. You can read the letter that compelled the state to build the memorial while visiting the site or on the memorial’s website.

The Kid’s gravestone, the Bosque Redondo Memorial and another popular local attraction, Bosque Redondo Lake, are found about six miles southeast of the town of Fort Sumner in an area surrounded by family farms and ranches where visitors can see sheep, cattle, goats and horses grazing contently.

 Campers and day visitors can enjoy Bosque Redondo Lake and its camp sites, bird watching, fishing and hiking and biking trails. The Pecos River flows nearby in wet years, feeding the area’s wealth of ponds and lakes. The area also features Fort Sumner and Santa Rosa State Parks where visitors can enjoy some great fishing for walleye, bass, catfish and trout. Reservations for overnight camping at these parks can be made through the New Mexico State Park’s website. 

In addition to the Bosque Redondo Memorial visitors can also visit a private museum dedicated to Billy the Kid as well as his grave site. The Billy the Kid Museum also has an RV park if camping at one of the area lakes is not available.

Back in town visitors might enjoy stopping in at Addison’s Drug Store where an art deco-style soda fountain is still in operation. Kept in working order since the 1940s, its shiny blue and chrome décor will charm you while you sip a soda or spoon up a thick shake. Booths in the back harbor friendly locals who will tell you exactly how to find Billy the Kid's grave.

Dave’s Grocery, a family owned market that any small town “west of the Pecos” would be happy to have, featured fresh vegetables, ground beef and a separate section for hardware. During our recent visit the male clerks were dressed in jeans and button down shirts and happily serving a steady stream of little kids and their mommas, retirees and tourists. There's also a couple of cannabis stores in town, a shop selling locally produced honey, drive-in burger and and ice cream joint and a very busy NAPA auto parts store. 

There’s also two substantial convenience stores in town including an Allsup's, known throughout New Mexico for their deep fried chimichangas and burritos.  We found the service during our visit refreshingly friendly in these post-Covid times, with many clerks offering friendly greetings and good humor. In fact, everyone we encountered during our visit throughout Fort Sumner, from the ladies at Addison’s soda fountain to the folks at the Bosque Redondo Memorial, were warm and greeted us politely. 

For non-campers, there’s plenty of hotel rooms at several different establishments in town. During our visit we stayed at the Super 8, which featured huge photographic prints of Shiprock, Tse Bit’a’ i, or the "rock with wings,” an iconic volcanic formation near the Four Corners area, and other images tied to the Diné homeland.

And around town some empty storefront windows are still decorated with advertisements for the 2018,  150th anniversary of the signing of the 1868 Treaty that set the Indians free and commemorated at the memorial and throughout Fort Sumner.

Fort Sumner's small town charm and vibrancy speaks of a promising future and its recognition and acceptance of its violent and sobering past does too. 

 The author is a former Farmington Daily Times reporter who along with fellow reporter, Debi Tracy Olsen, earned an E.H. Shaffer Award for Journalism for their series documenting The Long Walk in the early 1990s. They visited the memorial together during this trip. 

Things to do and see around Fort Sumner, NM:

·       Bosque Redondo Memorial – open Thursdays through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., $7 adult; children enter for free; Museums of New Mexico Cultural Pass accepted.

      Billy the Kid’s grave site

      Billy the Kid Museum – Open Monday through Saturday 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Adults $5; Seniors $4; Children 7 to 15, $3, and under 6, free. Closed some holidays and first two weeks of the year.

Bosque Redondo Lake Park -- Well-kept day and overnight spots at this small lake with lots of bird life. No entrance fee observed.

Sumner State Lake Park -- reservations needed for camp sites.

Santa Rosa Lake State Park . Several non-reservation camping spots available.

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